Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe opened earlier this month at the Denver Art Museum. Eric Paddock, curator of photography, sorted through hundreds of Josephson’s photographs and selected 62 photographs dating from 1959 to 2003 to show in the exhibition.
An early and influential conceptual photographer, Kenneth Josephson makes photographs of found and constructed visual puzzles that demonstrate his alert and often humorous way of encountering the world at large. This show highlights Josephson’s early experimental photographs, innovative conceptual work, and more recent landscapes. We were able to catch up with Eric after the opening to ask him a few questions about the exhibition.
Conceptual Photography vs Traditional
Desa Beslic: Before we begin talking about the exhibition, I was wondering if you could explain “conceptual photography.”
Eric Paddock: Wow, that is a great question. Difficult, but important. I guess when I use the term “conceptual” I am making the distinction between people whose works are fundamentally about looking, which would be traditional photographers, and people whose works are fundamentally about ideas, which would be conceptual photographers.
Traditional photographers are more accepting of the idea that a photograph is a transparent window onto the world. Conceptual photographers are more apt to question the validity of the medium or the way a photograph behaves as a cultural artifact. They often construct or stage subject matter for the camera. Conceptual photography is artwork that often requires some kind of statement or explanation; it isn’t self-sufficient where meaning is concerned. Kenneth Josephson’s work overlaps these two worlds, he leads you to some understanding of what he is talking about…you just need to spend time with the photograph in question.
Creating the Exhibition
DB: Thank you for clarifying. So it’s been a while since there was a Kenneth Josephson exhibition. How did you approach putting this one together?
EP: Initially I was intrigued by a few pictures that I knew well. Long before I proposed the exhibition, I went on a treasure hunt to investigate all the work he had done over the years. I was interested in figuring out what made him tick, both as an educator and influential artist. I found his work to be much more varied than I originally thought it was. The most challenging part of putting together this exhibition was trying to see how hundreds of photographs fit together. Some were overtly conceptual or experimental, while others were more simply–and beautifully–observed. However, they all asked questions about what it is to look and see. Josephson’s work really asks how photography mediates between its primary function–looking, and its secondary function–making.
DB: Is there any underlying theme or method to the layout of the exhibition?
EP: It is hard to arrange the photographs in a linear way when there are three entrances to the gallery. The choice of which entrance to take really affects a visitor’s entire engagement with the space and exhibition. Essentially, we organized the 62 photographs into a handful of small groups. For instance, one corner is about Josephson’s approach to nature photography. Another group is pictures within pictures, which demonstrate how a photo isolates details and creates juxtaposition outside of ordinary time. We also did a group that focuses on almost complete darkness, ultimately showing Josephson’s talent as a printer. I think this is part of the fun for visitors, to discover the groups and the narrative relationships that exist between the different parts of the groups. The point of the exhibition is to demonstrate Josephson's curiosity and creative drive across almost 50 years.
Humor & Lyricism
DB: What else are you excited for when visitors come to see this exhibition?
EP: I hope that visitors will come closer to understanding that a great photo involves commitment to seeing the world in new, revealing ways. A photograph isn’t just one thing. People approach photography in different ways. When looking at Josephson’s work it is not necessarily about the similarities and rules, instead it’s about realizing a personal vision and the excitement of invention. I also hope that the world will look a little different when they leave.
Kenneth Josephson’s photographs are a rare and wonderful blend of humor and lyricism that you don’t get with every artist every day. There is a sweetness and romance that is worth seeing and exploring.
Calling Attention to What We Don't Notice
DB: Tell me about a piece from the exhibition you find particularly interesting.
EP: Oh man, that’s like asking to pick between your children. Can I talk about two?
DB: Of course.
EP: All of his photographs are really great, but one example is Stockholm, from 1967 (as pictured above). He took a photograph of a Volvo in the morning where instead of a dark shadow there is a white car shape on the ground. We often see this in Colorado during the wintertime, when we wake up in the morning and everything has melted except the shadow of the car. He simply noticed this phenomenon and made a picture. He invites us to look, upending our expectations of how light, shadow, and photography work together. Another photograph I can’t seem to get out of my mind is a self-portrait he did in Chicago in 1966. He is standing above a grate and part of his shadow remains on top of the grate while the other part falls through. It creates a small shadow that is more or less contained within the larger shadow. Metaphorically, it suggests the child within and how he looks at the world with the same playfulness and excitement. He reminds us of how much we take for granted. I think a photographer’s job is to call attention to what we don’t notice. This photograph is also a great example of the serious playfulness that is woven throughout Josephson's work.
DB: How do you think this exhibition fits into the present state of photography?
EP: A lot of contemporary photographers are very interested in conceptual aspects of photography, basically intervening in the photographic process. Josephson is a major figure in the conceptual photography movement. He taught and encouraged a lot of conceptual photographers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Without his example, I think photography would be a little different. His work also serves as an important link between conceptual photographers of the 80s and modernist photographers of the 20s and 30s. Photography isn’t just straight forward. The medium allows for a great deal of experimentation and whimsy.
DB: Finally can you explain the title, Encounters with the Universe?
EP: This exhibition is really about seeing the way Josephson encounters the world. With Josephson the beauty, importance, and power of his photographs have more to do with the way he exists in the world and encounters it. These pictures are a window into the world–into Josephson's world–and what a surprising place it can be when you’re awake to it.
Kenneth Josephson: Encounters with the Universe is on view through May 8.
Image: Kenneth Josephson, Stockholm, 1967. © Kenneth Josephson. Courtesy Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, and Gitterman Gallery, New York.